Isolated green buildings won’t do much to cut carbon pollution, a trio of architects argue in a TED /CNN partnership. You’ve got to put those buildings in a sensible place for them to do much good, say Joshua Prince-Ramus, Randolph Croxton, and Tuomas Toivonen:

So-called “green” buildings are simply not sustainable if, for example:

  • Their occupants drive long distances every day.
  • The energy they consume is carbon-intensive.
  • Their technology is too complicated to use or too difficult to maintain.
  • Their impact stops at the property line.
  • They deny the use of pre-existing infrastructure or building fabric.
  • They are conceived in isolation from larger, systemic environmental change.

… “Green” buildings alone are not enough to divert our perilous course. A broader vision of sustainability is imperative to meet America’s challenge.

Spot on. But everyone in the green-buildings world already understands this — if they’re halfway informed and halfway honest. Who exactly are the writers refuting?

Real-estate marketers. Plenty of developers tout their homes and buildings as “green,” even if they’re out on the exurban fringe, where any sort of “sustainable lifestyle” is going to require a ton of driving. Case in point: Prairie Ridge Homes, 40 miles southwest of Chicago, which bills itself as “the nation’s first net zero energy community of custom designed homes.” The New Lenox site gets a zero on Walk Score, as NRDC’s Kaid Benfield notes. The handy tool Abogo finds that the site’s average transportation costs per household are 24 percent higher than the Chicago-area average. Carbon emissions from transportation are nearly twice the regional average. Not green.

The TED architects propose solutions that include the expected (urban growth boundaries) and one novel one:

  • Develop new types of urban structures that, by design, can adapt to a rich variety of unanticipated uses and accommodate new construction technologies as they evolve. This new class of structures would engender the organic, heterogeneous evolution that originally shaped America’s cities.

It’s tough to predict how a building will be used 40 years from now. Architect Joshua Prince-Ramus delivers a TED talk on his firm’s design for a “flexible” theater in Dallas:

(Hat tip to Kaid Benfield for the Prairie Ridge Homes example)